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Banned Books

Brass Tacks

By Stephen D. Lerner

To have one's book banned in Boston used to be the peak of a writer's career. No sales gimmick, advertising campaign, or TV spot could promote a book as rapidly as a Boston ban.

But today writers can no longer count on Boston censorship -- in the last four major obscenity trials in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Tropic of Cancer, Fanny Hill: The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Candy, and Naked Lunch have been judged fit for public consumption.

Most recently, Grove Press has published A Secret Life, a book by an anonymous Victorian who led a lurid life. Although the book's contents might easily be judged obscene (the index alone is enough to shock most of us) it will probably not be brought to court.

Under the current interpretation of obscenity law, three elements must coalesce in order to condemn a book as obscene: "it must be established that (a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards ...; and (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social values."

Standards for judging a book obscene became hopelessly confused when it was decided in Ginzburg v. U.S. that booksellers and distributors would be prosecuted for selling books that were "commercially exploited for the sake of prurient appeal, to the exclusion of all other values."

The Massachusetts trial which vindicated Naked Lunch will probably serve as a model for future obscenity trials. Primarily because a number of well known and respected writers testified to the literary value of Naked Lunch, it was not judged obscene. In defense of Burrough's novel, Norman Mailer testified that "We are richer for the record; and we are more impressive as a nation because a publisher can print that record and sell it in an open bookstore, sell it legally." Mailer went on to say that there should be no censorship. Allen Ginsberg also testified to the novel's poetic value and read the Supreme Judicial Court justices a poem he had composed in its praise.

In the trials of Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch there were eminent writers who were willing to spend their time defending the freedom of expression, but with less famous books, it is unlikely that the book's defenders would be able to entice writer-witnesses into the courtroom.

The "new legal morality" has also affected publishers' marketing practices. A representative of Grove Press (which has published Naked Lunch, the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, and The Story of O, as well as A Secret Life) said his publishing house avoids suits by pricing a book out of the large commercial market. It would be difficult to ban a $30 book because the publisher can argue that it won't be bought for kicks.

That any judge would feel himself or any random assembly of writers equipped to define "offensive material" or "redeeming social value" seems fantastically presumptuous. Any form of literary criticism is by definition subjective, and a judge's particular taste is, at best; a shaky basis for a legal decision.

Most people who defend the subjective legal standards necessary for deciding which books should be banned, argue that the young must be protected from lascivious literature at any cost. But almost all the books which appear in obscenity trials are adult books which adolescents are unlikely to read. It would appear that the moral defenders are actually trying to control the reading habits of adults who should be able to make their own choice.

To legislate taste is an impossibility and the courts could better expend their efforts in other fields. The ban should be reserved for cases in which it can be clearly demonstrated that a book is provoking action harmful to the society. Few such cases would probably ever arise, and even fewer would be upheld by the courts, but only under these circumstances can a truly free market of ideas exist.

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